Sunday, December 20, 2015

Review: Star Wars VII: The Force Awakens

When the movie ended, I mulled over how to react. It took a lot of mulling. I could not instantly say "This was great!" I certainly couldn't say "This was bad!" Is it good? Is it great? Is it good only in the context of the Star Wars saga, or good as movie qua movie? Is it just another sci-fi movie with Star Wars nostalgia thrown in to appeal to fans? Or is it a better movie than the usual crop of sci-fi movies?

(For context, I love the original trilogy (RotJ a bit less) and I do not hate the second trilogy. I disliked the enhancements that Lucas made to the original trilogy: they didn't add anything and they really look kind of hokey, but they didn't ruin the movies for me. The second trilogy had some pitifully bad acting, midichlorians were a useless and stupid addition, and Jar Jar was annoying, enough to stress my enjoyment of the first movie. The pod race went on for too long. It was insane that none of the Jedi could see that Annakin was a complete failure as a Jedi (he was so transparently unable to control his emotions that it was criminal to let him be a Jedi), and the final fight between Annakin and Obi Wan ended really stupidly, what with the "high ground" and Obi Wan letting his friend burn to death instead of putting him out of his misery. But I didn't find the taxation and blockade plots boring. I liked Amadalia's spunk, the light saber fights was awesome, and I thought the plot hung together fairly well. Remember that Return of the Jedi had stupid Ewok battle scenes and really bad acting from Carrie Fisher (who acted fine in the first two movies). Something about the second trilogy movies were still appealing to me: that thing that made Star Wars. Which may simply be the well-choreographed lightsaber battles.)

Is it good? Yes. Is it great? Um... maybe?

It is entertaining and plotted well, even if they leave out a number of explanations to fully understand some of the plot details. However, it is missing parts of what made Star Wars unique. The first is development between the action scenes, like Luke talking to his Aunt and Uncle or looking out over the horizon, Han and Leia talking, Han and Luke talking, Obi Wan talking to Luke and training him, etc. This movie has one conversation between humans, and it is flat and forgettable. It has a few slower scenes, and they are great; but more were necessary. Another is character transformation, like Luke learning to take on responsibility, Han turning back to save the rebellion, or Darth Vader, for that matter. There are two transformation in this movie: one is early in the movie and very quick, so it hardly counts, and the other is non-mental and not really a kind that makes you feel invested in it. It just happens, and you're left wondering why. Mostly, what is missing from this movie is mysticism. No one is reaching out to a higher cause or into the unfathomable unknown. Mysticism is nearly, almost, kind of struggling to be there in the movie, but it doesn't happen until the very last frame of the movie.

The nostalgia is there, but not overwhelmingly so. We get some of the old characters on screen for a while, and they don't just stand there looking wistful. I realize that it's hard to strike the right balance. Nevertheless, it is mishandled a bit. The movie tries to copy the original trilogy too much; there really is too much New Hope in it. A planet sized weapon attacked by X-Wings and Tie fighters, plans hidden in a droid, a freakin' alien bar scene. There is even a father son conflict. We did these already, didn't we?

The cinematography is vastly better than the first or second trilogies. Ships and hovercraft move in erratic patterns with oddly tracked shots full of detail as the camera focus swirls around. Ships don't look like models or sterile backdrops; they are fully realized and lifelike. If Lucas was trying to "update" his original trilogy with enhancements to make it look more modern, this movie shows how far he failed in doing so. THIS movie looks incredibly good, so much so, that it feels un-Star Wars, which has always been a bit less complicated and a bit more hokey than the modern sterile sci-fi we are used to.

It was great to see a mad dash to save the girl only to find out that she doesn't need saving. It was nice to see diversity, but really, there is only one black dude in the galaxy, so far (unless Lando is hiding somewhere). BB-8 is really good as a WALL-E type droid, though mostly a substitute for R2-D2 who is awol for much of the movie.

The acting is universally good. Like the original movie, there is nearly no on-screen romantic dialog, a welcome change from the worst elements of episodes II and III. Newcomers Daisy Ridley and John Boyega are charismatic, and even have a bit of chemistry. On the other hand, Adam Driver as Kylo (the villain), and Oscar Isaac as Poe (a hero) are both uninteresting, flat characters.

Though the movie has plot problems, little character transformation, and little substantive dialog between characters, I still enjoyed the movie. Partly due to nostalgia. Partly that it is a decent action movie, like the better Marvel or Batman movies. Party because there are lightsabers. And partly due to the charisma of Harrison Ford, Daisy, and John. As for the latter two, we will watch your careers with great interest.

Spoilers, questions, and complaints ahead.

Wednesday, December 02, 2015

Movie Reviews: The Hunger Games: Mockingjay Part 2, Mission Impossible: Rogue Nation, Spectre, Minions, Paper Towns

The Hunger Games: Mockingjay - Part 2: This movie, while not as good as the first two films, is a fine action flick with some unique elements that sets it apart from other modern action movies. One is that it tackles the question of whether the resistance is really a better substitute than the existing tyranny. Another is the fine, strong and useful heroine as the central character.

The acting and directing are good and the movie is put together well. But this movie is only half a movie, and you won't understand most of it without having read the books or seen the first three movies, especially the third. If the third book would not have been split into two movies, the result would have been one much better movie.

As usual, I don't ding a movie just for leaving out parts of the book or for changing elements in the book. However, what was left out of the movie includes some of the central themes the book, and that's a pity. Perhaps the most crucial element left out of the movie is that Katniss was a selfish, spoiled, and lazy heroine who had to train in order to be able to handle herself in the field. Also left out of the movie is the brutal and permanent physical disfigurements she sports by the end of the book; she lives out the remainder of her life with half of her face burned off. J-Law's Katniss suffers no such problems in the movie, despite a scene showing her getting burned. Like in the first movie, the physical and social desperation and psychological trauma are dispensed with in favor of the kind of insensitive and careless video game violence that we come to expect from movies, where no one eats or goes to the bathroom and children can kill hundreds of people or watch hundreds of people die horrible deaths and yet suffer only a brief cry or angry outburst. Pity. Go read the books.

Still, this last movie is worthy and entertaining. We will watch Jennifer's career with great interest.

Mission Impossible: Rogue Nation: At least this series, like the original Bourne trilogy, but unlike the current superhero movies or the Bond franchise, gives us thrilling action sequences that appear semi-possible and even - occasionally - make you think that they may end with the main characters dead.

This MI, like the last one, is far more entertaining than it should have been. It only crashed for me in the middle during a car chase that had one too many car flips. When the occupant jumps sprightly out of the overturned car onto a motorcycle, my disbelief could no longer be suspended and the movie was ruined for me for about twenty minutes.

The end also seemed rather impossible since the plan required a bunch of people to be exactly at one spot at a specific time with certain hardware and construction that could not possibly have been obtained or constructed, but whatever. Tom Cruise manages to not crowd out everyone else in the movie, at least.

It's all still pretty dumb, but it's entertaining and occasionally clever. The whole plot is a mcguffin for the action sequences. Something about an organization taking over the world.

Spectre: Spectre completes a four part mini-arc for Daniel Craig's James Bond. It is better than the frenetic and unwatchable Quantum, and not quite as stupid as the ridiculously plotted Skyfall. I would rank it below Casino Royale, which was the most straightforward of the films.

While not quite as stupid as Skyfall, please tell me Bond's plan wasn't to walk into the lair, let himself be captured, trussed, and tortured, and, while drills are going into his head, hand his watch to his girlfriend in full view of many bad guys, have her toss the watch so that it blows up exactly the right way to knock out exactly the right people and release his electronic locks, and have all the bad guys miss him from close range, and walk to the unguarded and available helicopter, and have the lair blow up from a couple of bullet shots due to ... actually, I still don't know why it all blew up. It's like the scriptwriters are not even trying anymore. The surveillance capabilities are also presented as ridiculous; I don't put it past governments to have more surveillance than many of us know, but I feel pretty confident that they still can't capture video inside a remote house without at least having placed a video camera in the house first.

And since when can nine different governments cooperate sufficiently to put all of their surveillance into the hands of a British guy? Heck, since when can nine different government organizations in the same country even connect their computers to the same network?

The film tries to introduce an actual romantic interest, as opposed to just a sexual interest, for our hero. And it brings into question whether Bond really wants to continue being a 00. Watchable, but silly. The whole plot is a mcguffin for the action sequences. Something about an organization taking over the world.

Minions: The prequel to Despicable Me, this fluff kids movie contains many funny moments but a pretty bad plot. It is the movie equivalent of a game with a lot of tactics but not a smidgen of strategy.

Despicable Me at least had the bad guy turn into a good guy, which makes sense when the main characters all care for and love each other. This movie dispenses with any kind of character arcs or growth, has only bad guys, and hangs the movie on a quest by three walking babbling banana slugs in search of "the most evil" person to serve. This really makes no sense. The movie ridicules the idea of evil, making "the most despicable" characters into jewel thieves who steal lollipops from kids ... and not much worse. I can think of worse people who work at my bank. And no one ever gets killed or hurt for real.

The animators and director do an incredible job of carrying the movie along with almost no understandable dialog for most of it. The silent movies did it 100 years ago, and apparently these were part of the inspiration for how to achieve it in this movie.

I am uncomfortable with the whole premise, since there is no one to root for, really. If we ignore that, the movie is basically plotless, and the quest is nonsensical. Despite this, in between holding my head at the inappropriateness of the whole endeavor, I laughed out loud quite a few times. Scene after scene is thrown at you with joke after joke, and some of them are quite clever and funny. Something like The LEGO Movie (which didn't suffer from the problems that this movie has). But ... are all the minions boys? Why?

There are so many better movies with better values that I wouldn't buy it for my kids or go out of my way to see it. However cute the banana slugs are.

Paper Towns:  John Green is having a few good years. After The Fault in Our Stars, he comes back with another movie based on one of his books. This one has more normal teenagers, none of whom are heading for imminent death.

Quentin (Nat Wolff) loves a neighbor girl Margo (Cara Delevingne) who has a habit of disappearing. Near the end of high school, she takes him out for a night in which she exacts her revenge on her (now) ex-boyfriend, ex-friends, and a few others and then disappears the next day. He and his friends decide to track her down based on the clues she left as to her whereabouts. Meanwhile, high school is drawing to a close and each of the friends has his or her own stories and concerns about the present or future.

Part high school romcom, part mystery (very small part), and part road trip, I started off not liking the movie because neither Quentin nor Margo initially appeared to be likeable. The disappearance to come was predictable, so I am not spoiling that for you. It is after this that the movie picks up, slowly, slowly the characters evolve and they all become likeable. The minor things in the movie are not always predictable, and even the major ones, while more predictable, are handled well.

A sweet movie with several interesting allegories that I expect (hope) are explored more thoroughly in the book.

Saturday, November 28, 2015

2015 Holiday Gift Guide

This guide includes games for young and old, for every sex, generation, temperament, and culture.

Whatever you do, and whatever you celebrate, there is no better way to spend a Christmas, Hanukkah, or what have you than together with friends, family, and neighbors with a warm cup of (fair trade) cocoa and a stack of casual board and/or card games.

Remember that the most valuable gift you can give is time. Don't just give your loved ones a game; play it with them. Find or start a local game group and join or form a community.

I hope you enjoy the guide. Remember: the holidays are not only for sharing the warmth with family and friends, but also for sharing with those who have no one else to share with them. Give to your local shelters, hospitals, and so on, because that's the gift that keeps on giving.

Samsung Galaxy Tab 4 10"

I'm starting with this unusual choice for a board game list, because tablets are perfect platforms for playing thousands of face to face games for two to four players. Because you don't need to buy the physical components, you can stack all your games in a teeny space, the games (if not the tablet) cost very little, and you don't have to cut down old trees to make them or use fossil fuels to ship them. Tablets have their own environmental impact in their making, so that's a trade off; but if you're getting one anyway, most of the games on this list are available electronically.

Nowadays, most games are also available on consoles, too.
7 Wonders: Ages 9+, 4 to 7 players

This is a game of drafting cards and building a wondrous city. You get a hand of cards; pick one and pass the rest. Everyone reveals the card they picked and puts it into their tableaux. Repeat. Done. Score points based on the combinations of cards you have at the end of all the passing.

The graphics are fantastic, the theme not so visible. It's easy to learn, provides great choices, with depth enough to spare.

Antike II: Ages 8+, 2 to 6 players

Risk is a long game of laying low, with player elimination and just too much in the luck department; this game (and its predecessor but very rare and expensive Antike) is the perfect evolution to, and replacement for, Risk.

It plays quicker, there's dice-less conflict, no one gets to lay low watching while others fight, and - excepting truly poor play - everyone has a chance for most of the game. There's also a lot more to the game than just conflict, but the rules are short and elegant.

Other alternatives for the Risk player are Antike Duellum (for two players) and Risk Legacy (an odd game that moves in one game affect the next).

Backgammon: Ages 6+, 2 players

Backgammon is a classic game that can be enjoyed by children and parents alike. While there is a large amount of luck in the game, there are also many meaningful decisions, which makes this a good stepping stone to future games with more challenge, such as Checkers or Chess.
Blokus, Blokus Trigon, Blokus Duo: Ages 8+, 4 players (Blokus), 2-4 players (Blokus Trigon), or 2 players (Blokus Duo)

Blokus, Blokus Trigon, and Blokus Duo are abstract games with very simple rules. Each round you take a piece and place it on the board such that it touches any previous pieces you have played, but only corner to corner. It can touch other players' pieces along corners or sides.

The rules are easy, the components are beautiful, and it's fun.
Boggle: Ages 8+, 2 to 10 players

Boggle is a word game, whose simple rules - find all the words you can within three minutes - make it a game that is both fun and quick. Adults can play with kids by restricting the adults to have to find words of four or five letters.

The pictured version is a little quieter and less bulky than the old boxy version, and comes with a built-in electronic timer.
Candle Quest: Ages 6+, 2 to 4 players

A little plug for my own game. This is a simple set-collection auction game with a Hanukkah theme. It fits in well with the other games on the list: easy to learn, quick to play, lots of replayability. The theme makes it appropriate for all ages, and there's nothing overtly Jewish about it, other than that it's a menorah, so anyone should feel comfortable playing it.

Of course, I may be biased, since I designed it. This game was published by Victory Point Games.
Carcassonne, variants, and expansions: Ages 10+, 2 to 5 players

Carcassonne is a bit more complex than some of the other games here, but the beautiful pieces and the fun game play are worth the time to learn. Pick a piece from the pile, rotate and place it so that it fits on the board (like dominoes), and then optionally place one of your pieces on that tile. There are several ways to score, some of which occur during the game and some of which only at the end of the game.

There are some more rules than that, but not too many more. The game play is engaging enough to make you want to play it more than once in a single sitting.

There are dozens of versions to the game, and some of the versions have several expansions.

Catan: Ages 8+, 3 to 4 players

This game, formerly known as The Settlers of Catan, and Ticket to Ride, are the perfect adult games for beginning gamers.

All you need to do is collect ten points through building settlements and cities, connecting roads, adding developments and trading with your fellow players. A unique board that changes each time you play, constant interaction even when it's not your turn, and a great balance of luck versus strategy makes this The Game to acquire if you still think that board games are only for kids.

Chess / Xiangqi / Shogi: Ages 6+, 2 players

These three games, Chess, XiangQi (Chinese Chess), and Shogi (Japanese Chess), are all top-tier 2-player games that can occupy a curious mind for an entire lifetime. They also have wide followings, so learning the game is learning a language that will admit you to a culture of fellow players around the world.

Board and piece prices range from inexpensive to very expensive, and Chess pieces come in many different themes.
Chinese Checkers: Ages 6+, 2 to 6 players

Another great abstract, and a pretty one if you find one with nice marbles. The rules are simple: move or jump your pieces from one side to the other. Finding chains of jumps is a thrill for all ages.
Carrom / Crokinole / Nok-Hockey / Air Hockey / Billiards / Foosball, etc.: Ages 6+, 2 players

Carrom is the most played tabletop game in India. Like Billiards, the object is to knock pieces off the table area, which you do by flicking wooden disks with your fingers. Crokinole is another classic finger flicking game, as is a racing game called Pitchcar. All kinetic tabletop games, from snooker to billiards to foosball, are loved by players of all ages.
Cards: Ages 3+, 1 to any number of players

Decks of cards, whether they are the well known Western type with 52 cards in 4 suits, or special European or Asian decks, are a great starting point for any number of wonderful games, including Bridge, Hearts, Skat, Cribbage, Pinochle, Oh Hell, Bullsh*t, Durak, President, Spades, Solitaire, and many others.

Check out for the rules to these games and to thousands of others.

Dixit: Ages 10+, 3-6 (12) players

Dixit is an incredible game, especially for non-gamers. It is loved as a creative exercise: pick a card and give a word, phrase, song, dance, or any other clue to describe it, but not too perfectly. The other players try to play cards that also match your clue. You only get points if some people guess which was your card and some people don't.

The fun is in the creativity of the clues, and I've yet to see a game where even the most stodgy non-gamer doesn't have fun.

This game, like many others, was inspired by Apples to Apples, another nifty game for the casual non-gamers who walk among us.
Dominion: Ages 10+, 2-4 players

Dominion is a game based around deck building: as you play, you acquire cards which get shuffled into your deck. You need victory points to score, but too many early victory points will clog up your deck, making it harder to acquire more points.

A brilliant adaptation of a mechanic, it plays quickly and every game plays differently. The game has several expansions, all of which are good.
Froggy Boogie: Ages 3-9, 2 to 4 players

Froggy Boogie is a brilliant game to frustrate grownups and please younger children. All you have to do is remember where the picture of the fly is, under the left eye or the right eye? The dice have only colors - no counting necessary. It's a perfect first game.
Go / Pente: Ages 6+, 2 players

Beyond Chess, Checkers, or XiangQi is the absolute perfect game of Go (aka Weiqi); it's so popular, there are twenty-four hour television stations dedicated to it, an anime series based on it, and it's considered one of the four arts of the Chinese scholar.

It really is that good, and the rules are easy, too. Best of all, a built-in handicap system allows two people of any skill levels to enjoy a challenging game against each other.

You should play with the nicest board you can afford.

Pente, a game of getting five stones in a row, can be played on the same board. The rules are just as easy as Go, and while the game has much less depth, it is also a little less intimidating to new players.
Jungle Speed: Ages 8+, 3 to 8 players

There are several games of speed reaction / pattern recognition on the market; I chose this one because of the components. Players flip cards in turn and grab for the totem in the middle as soon as two matching cards are revealed. Don't play with friends who have sharp nails or finger jewelry.

Love Letter: Age 8+, 2-4 players

This game has just 16 cards, but it packs a full, replayable deduction, bluffing game into 10 minutes. It's a top seller, takes 30 seconds to learn, and is challenging to play.

It's not my type of game, but I'm in the minority.
Magic the Gathering: Ages 8+, 2 players

After two decades, Magic is still The Bomb when it comes to collectible card games, although Yu-Gi-Oh sells more cards. These are not easy games to learn, but quick start guides can get you off the ground fairly quickly, and then you have months and years of challenging game play ahead of you.

Don't get sucked into having to buy endless amounts of boosters; to play the game outside of a tournament, you only need a few hundred common cards which can be picked up for a penny each on various sites.
Mancala: Ages 5+, 2 players

This is widely known around the world under various names (e.g. Oware), and the national game of many African countries.

The rules are easy: pick up all the seeds in one of your bowls and place one in each bowl around the table. If you land on an empty space on your side, you win the seed and any seeds opposite.

There are a few more rules, but that's about it. It takes a few games to get up to speed; early victories tend to be lopsided. Once you get the hang of it, you can play several, quick, challenging games in succession.
Memory: Ages 3 to 12, 2 to 5 players

This is a first game for kids and adults, and a great game for it, because kids get the hang of it very quickly and adults find it a real challenge without having to pretend. All you need are one or two decks of cards, but an infinite number of these games are sold with various different pictures and themes.

You can play with more than 5 players, but I wouldn't recommend it.
Nefarious: Ages 8+, 2 to 6 players

This is a game of mad scientists that is great for 2 to 6 players, and doesn't sacrifice speed with more players. Each round, you select one of four actions. collect money from any neighbors who selected actions that your minions are invested in, perform your action, and then check to see if you won. The actions are: invest minions, play cards, take cards, or take money.

The cards are fun and the game is quick and replayable, because, in each game, you play with some random twists that make that game's experience unique.
No Thanks: Ages 7+, 3 to 5 players

This is an easy to learn and addictive little card game. A card is flipped up, and you either take the card and any tokens on it or place one of your tokens on it and pass it to the next player. Cards are bad, and tokens are good. But runs of cards only penalize you for the lowest valued card.

A simple and fun game.
Parade: Ages 7+, 3 to 5 players

Another easy to learn and addictive little card game. Add cards to the end of the "parade", taking cards from the parade into your pile based on a few simple rules. Points are bad ... usually.
Pit: Ages 7+, 4 to 10 players

I don't know if you can play up to 10 players with the original game, but you should. This is a loud trading game. The cards are dealt out, someone says go, and everyone shouts for what they need. The first player to collect a full set wins.

Raucous and fun. The deluxe version comes with it's own bell to signal the start of trading.
Poker: Ages 6+, 2 to any number of players

Playing for money is not a good habit, but a nice set of poker chips and some decks of cards is a great way to spend an evening. There are countless poker games, too.
Scrabble: Ages 8+, 2 (or 2 to 4) players.

Scrabble purists will tell you that you should only play with 2 players and a Chess clock, but for casual purposes it can be played with up to four. It is The word game, and for a good reason.

My favorite way to play is to ditch the board and just play Anagrams: turn over tiles, and first to call a word gets it. A similar, recommended game is Bananagrams, where players race to create their own crossword boards.
Set: Ages 6+, 2 to 10 players

Those who don't have it won't enjoy it. For those who do, it hits just the right spot in the brain. All you have to do is call out matches when you see them, but the matches have to match or not match in all four characteristics.
Shadows Over Camelot: Ages 12+, 3 to 7 players

A cooperative game, this is no feel-good game of cooperation. The hordes of Saxons, Mordred, siege engines, and sinister knights are out to destroy Camelot, and you have to work together to save it. But lurking among the players is a traitor who wins if you all lose. Or is there?

Pretty components, albeit more complex than most of the games on this list. But it's easy for people to join and leave midgame.

Other recommended co-operative games that have made a splash in the last few years are Pandemic and Forbidden Island
Stratego: Ages 6 to 15, 2 players

By the time I was in my teens, I had outgrown this, but it remains a seminal game for early players, a great introductory war game with all the basic elements: strategy, tactics, and bluffing. Avoid the electronic ones; they break and they're noisy.
Ticket To Ride: Ages 8+, 2 to 5 players

Many of my fellow bloggers think that this, rather than Catan, is The Game. I used to disagree, but I think I have come around. New players will find this a great intro game, with lots of choices and great game play.

There are several editions of the game, and the 1910 expansion is recommended.
Tichu: Ages 8+, 4 players

A partnership "ladder" game, similar to the game President (sometimes known by its crude name). It's similar, but the addition of a few special cards, a partnership, and passing elevate this to a perfect game for two couples. This is THE card game in gamer circles, and it's not at all complicated.
Time's Up: Ages 8+, 4 to 10 players

This consistently ranks as the number one party game on all of my fellow bloggers' lists. It's the number one ranked party game on Board Game Geek. Which says something.

It plays a lot like the parlor game Celebrities.
Uno: Ages 6 to 12, 2 to 8 players

This could be a child's second game, after Memory, and before moving on to real games. There's not much in the way of thinking involved, but its simple rules, portability, and quick play make it an ideal game for younger kids in almost any situation.

Just be sure to move up to better games when the kids are ready.
Wits and Wagers / Balderdash: Ages 8+, 4+ players

These are party trivia games where knowledge of trivia is not so important. The question is asked, and each player writes down an answer. These are revealed and players then bid on the answers they think are best. The winning answer, and the winning bids, all score points.

Wits and Wagers does this in the form of a poker game setting, while Balderdash requires you to make up funny possible answers. Both have won awards and acclaim as an order of magnitude better than you-know-which famous trivia game.
Zooloretto: Ages 8+, 2 to 5 players

Winner of dozens of awards, Zooloretto is a cute game for kids and decent game for adults. Simply take the animals as they are revealed from the deck and try to fit them into your zoo without overcrowding.

A few extra rules and some clever mechanisms makes the game enjoyable for all ages.


Tuesday, November 03, 2015

Reviews: Supergirl (TV pilot), Bridge of Spies, Ant-Man, Trainwreck, At Middleton

Supergirl (TV pilot): SNL did a skit that lampooned what a Black Widow Marvel superhero movie would be like, It simultaneously lamented the lack of female-centered Marvel movies and anticipated that, if Marvel were to produce one, it would be more like 27 Dresses than like Iron Man. Because, after all, women in movies must be portrayed as having to deal with relationships, romance, and sucky jobs at fashion magazines.

Astonishingly, when the trailer to the Supergirl TV show came out, the trailer looked remarkably like the SNL spoof: a female superhero show that appeared centered on a girl with a sucky job at a newspaper with love and self-identity issues (and a little action). Was it really going to be The Devil Wears Prada with a cape?

The answer is: it's not quite The Devil Wears Prada with a cape; it's about 80% like that, mixed with some of the worst writing that modern TV science fiction has to offer. Melissa Benoist is fine as the protagonist, but she has to deal with her tired cliche of a bitchy female boss (nowhere near as interesting as Perry White, or even Miranda Priestly), the tired cliche of a jealous, antagonistic sister, and the tired cliche of having to figure out how to be true to herself. Come on.

Far worse is the nonsense inflicted on us by the action (mild spoilers). One of the enemies (one of many escaped criminals, all originally from Krypton, and all therefore with the same powers as Supergirl) decides to kill as many innocent civilians as possible in the city, so he begins by driving at night on a deserted highway, in a truck, for several hours until Supergirl can conveniently catch up to him. This enemy who had proved to be stronger than Supergirl at their first encounter, is weaker in the second encounter, because why not? While struggling over an item held by the enemy, the enemy simply holds on for a minute while Supergirl overcharges it, rather than do, say, anything else. When the item explodes, while both of them are holding on to it, only the enemy is blown back by the explosion, and not Supergirl, because why not? Of course, the enemy never uses any of his other superpowers.

Supergirl's other "antagonists" are the supposed good guys who don't believe in her until she proves herself. They have kryptonite darts and kryptonite handcuffs which they only use on Supergirl instead of on the Krypton enemies, because ... plot?

It's just ridiculous, from beginning to end. Supergirl fan crushes over a guy, awkwardly tripping over her words and giggling, just like in the SNL parody. Superman does the same in his movies, but we know he's doing it on purpose. Speaking of Superman, we have the same problem with this show as we have with the Marvel movies that feature only one of the Avengers: having established that another hero exists in this world, where the heck is he when the Earth is faced with hundreds of super-criminals?

And speaking of Superman, we neither see Superman (except in blurry profile) not hear the word "Superman" during the entire pilot, despite many, many references to him. We hear "Kal El", "that guy", "my cousin", etc etc. It rapidly became very jarring. I can only surmise that there is some kind of licensing problem with both the image and the word.

I won't be watching future episodes.

Update: Okay, I lied. I watched the next episode. Wow, it is MUCH better than the first episode. The actions sequences now - sometimes - make a little sense. The plot is not - always - ridiculous. The dialog is not - always - forced and unbelievable. It has gone down from 90% annoying to only about 20% annoying.

Supergirl is setting itself up as an oddball superhero story, one in which the protagonist, while possessing superpowers, is unable to function without assistance from a myriad of human sources. It starts her off with her powers, yes, but she requires all kinds of training to be able to use them in ways that don't cause collateral damage and are effective against others of her kind. On the one hand, the fact that they did this for the one superhero show that features a woman is a bit insulting. On the other hand, it's the kind of thing that should be done a lot more often, so it's actually an intriguing idea. It's a superhero show functioning more like a Mission Impossible show.

They also used the word "Superman" several times, so there goes my theory.

Bridge of Spies: Another Tom Hanks/Steven Spielberg collaboration based on a true story. Hanks plays the everyman with a perfected moral sense (he is kind of typecast this way, by now): lawyer James Donovan who acts as defense lawyer in the late 1950s for accused and actual spy Rudolph Abel and then negotiates With Russia and Germany to swap Abel for downed American spy pilot Frances Gary Powers and another hostage.

The first half of the movie is about the trial, in which Donovan succeeds in keeping Rudolph alive. The second half is about the negotiations in East Berlin around the time that the wall is first going up. Everyone does a fine job. Mark Rylance is so captivating as Abel, that it is a shame he disappears for the second half of the movie. The tension is well developed despite the paucity of things actually happening - half a movie, essentially, on a single negotiation. Other tensions - such as the effect on Donovan's family and reputation for publicly defending a spy at the height of the Cold War - are cursorily developed. The fact that the story is true (or true enough; some parts of the story, such as a third hostage and the experience of the downed pilot, were left out) adds to the enjoyment.

Watchable on the small screen.

Ant-Man: I nearly skipped this entirely, but I had time to kill as I was home alone and sick. I abandoned it about 3/5 of the way through. Marvel movies are bad enough with their cookie-cutter plots, great visuals and cool stunts, one-dimensional characters, funny quips, and important objectives of, you know, saving the world (or the universe, or whatever). This movie lacked the great visuals and important objectives. The plot was so narrowly defined and the objectives so straightforward and the plot so cookie-cut, that it felt like it had been generated by a computer. The ending was so forgone that the plot lacked tension. I was bored.

Trainwreck: Amy Schumer is funny, even hysterical, in small doses. At longer exposures you feel like she's recycling material to fill time. The jokes wear thin, and what's left to carry the movie is the plot, which is not bad but not particularly groundbreaking. Amy plays a woman who doesn't understand relationship commitment, while also playing the daughter of a sick man and the sister of a married woman. She meets Mr Right, so to speak, but it's not clear why he would be interested in her. That's actually the excuse she uses to push him away, but it's not given a satisfactory answer.

The movie isn't exactly a train wreck, but neither is it satisfying. It's disjointed. And we get yet another entry in the cliched trope of bitchy female bosses.

At Middleton: Andy Garcia and Vera Farmiga play parents who meet-cute while bringing their children to visit a college. They are both married (to other people), but that doesn't stand in the way of a day-long series of romantic explorations and companionable interactions, the type you would expect to see in far better movies or with younger characters.

Garcia and Farmiga are charming, but they lack a script with any value. They visit all of the romcom cliches and speak some scant sentences that lack any depth and often appear completely out of place. Maybe three or four times it seems like they are going to have a substantive conversation, but it goes nowhere after the first sentence. The events they experience are forced upon them by the screenwriter: They play Chopsticks together. They climb a bell tower. The smoke weed and act silly (always one of my least favorite movie scenes, as it is cheap and boring to watch people giggle and dance around while pretending to be stoned, and all such scenes are always the same and a waste of screen time). They dance in a fountain. They almost kiss several times. They reveal that they are bored in their marriages. Ho hum.

Worse, the lack of discretion they exhibit is unbelievable, and the delusional movie trope that someone can be cured of acrophobia - and, apparently, the need to wear glasses - just by having spent a few fun hours with someone of the opposite sex is insulting to the intelligence. The kids also have some screen time, but their scenes are not significant.

Monday, October 19, 2015

New Games to me in Recent Months

Amerigo - A big box game of island exploration. There are seven phases in five turns. Each phase you toss wooden cubes into a tower and the number and color of cubes that make it back out the bottom determine the available actions for all players in the phase. Each player can only pick one of the available actions, which is typically decided by what benefits you the most at that point. However, achieving good island positions or acquiring the better bonus ability cards lead to some strategic decisions. It's a good game, with the downside of some phases near the end of the game being very limited in available useful options. A gamer's game for 2-4 players (3-4 is better).

Among the Stars - A card drafting, civ building game ala 7 Wonders, but with square cards that you arrange into a space station. The distance you place each card from other cards (color or type) affects its cost and/or value. Played over 4 phases. Seems pretty nice, with the usual luck of planning to get certain cards and then not getting them. 2-4 players, good game.

Castles of Mad King Ludwig - I played this after playing Suburbia (see below), and I think whichever game you play first is the one you like most. It's actually nearly as good as Suburbia: better because of the interesting rearrangement mechanic for the tiles each round, but worse because this rearrangement, and the oddly shaped buildings, are less elegant. Some of the rules were hard to figure out on the first play. Gamer's game for 2-4 players.

Dixit Odyssey - Dixit is an incredibly good game for non-gamers, and also enjoyed by gamers as a break from stratgeic thinking and an outlet for creativity of a different kind. This game is simplya copy of Dixit, with brand new but equally good cards, and the ability to play up to 12 people instead of 6. No better or worse than the brilliant original.

Ergo - I bought this with the assumption that I would like it after using the fixes suggested by gamers, but even with them the game seems to be unplayable as more than a teaching device. There must be some way to do something with it. Too bad.

Exploding Kittens / NSFW Deck - An exceedingly bad game. This game offers amusing pictures and stunningly bad gameplay, unfortunately like so many other games that come from non-game designers. On the other hand, after I quit the game, I heard many of the other players laughing while playing. That's because it is a straightforward "take-that" game of randomly drawing cards and playing them on other people, who have to randomly draw cards to counteract the attacks. When they do or don't, this amuses people. 3-5 player, not for serious gamers (best enjoyed with alcohol).

Five Tribes - A meaty game from Days of Wonder, this is a nearly all tactical game of moving pieces around the board and taking off sets of them to score points. It's pretty and interestingly balanced, but the long-term strategies (Djinns) don't always work as planned: you have to constantly work out how many points you are spending and receiving for each play, and how many points you're leaving over for the next guy. 2-4 players, gamer's game but suitable as a second gaming experience (after Ticket to Ride, for example).

PDQ - A light and quick word game on par with Anagrams. Flip three cards and place in order; take the cards if you call out (first) a word that used the letters in order. The official rules allow you to use the letters in either direction, but I don't find that to be necessary. I also don't know why you can't just play with Scrabble tiles. Any number of players. Fun game for those who like word games.

Suburbia - See Castles of Mad King Ludwig above. This is a nifty civ building game that seems to have been designed for a computer rather than as a board game. As a board game, you have to take care of checking the effects of each tile you place against every other tile in the game, which is not as bad as it seems, but still a bit of a hassle. Other than that, this is an excellent gamer's game of placing tiles and scoring for each. It's mostly tactical, but you can invest in certain types of tiles and hope you get first crack at them when they come up. This makes it similar to all of the other card based civ building games, like 7 Wonders and Among the Stars, as mentioned above. 2-4 players.

Movie Reviews: The Martian, Far from the Madding Crowd, The Intern, Two Night Stand, Kingsman: The Secret Service, Adventureland

The Martian: Following on last year's thrilling Interstellar, about a bunch of guys making a long trip into outer space who need to use science to solve major problems in order to get back home comes this thriller about a bunch of guys who made a long trip into outer space and need to use science to solve major problems in order to get back home.

The Martian is a cross between Castaway and Interstellar, less epic, more formulaic, and actually less believable or thrilling than the latter, but more epic, more engaging, and more satisfying than the former. The Martian keeps us engaged by having the castaway find a way to communicate with home relatively early on in the movie, giving us more than just a monologue on survival and what would have been too much Matt Damon (who, like Tom Cruise, can only be tolerated when taken together with other, less egotistical actors).

The pacing and feel of this movie very Marvelesque, which is both good and bad, depending on your desire to see another Marvel movie. Lots of quips, cuts, and action, explosions and tensions, both personal and interpersonal in the expected places, and a pretty foregone conclusion about how it will end up. Still, merging the Marvel plot with a slightly slower and more rigorously scientific plot made for some fascinating screen moments.

What was most unbelievable was the fact that our castaway survived every one of the calamities that should simply have killed him, each time coming up with the long odds. And that calamities that should have happened several times only happened once and then were never seen again; what happened to all of those debilitating storms during his 45 day trek across the surface? This made his insufferable speech at the end about how, when one is faced with a catastrophe, science and hard work will help you through all the more insufferable. No, in fact, if you are faced with a series of events that each have a 95% chance of killing you, you will die. Don't encourage people to take those chances unless the alternative is an even higher percent chance of dying.

Anyhoo, it's a good movie, worth seeing on the big screen.

Far from the Madding Crowd: Also a good movie. Thomas Hardy was a writer of depressing novels where characters (especially women) make bad, unorthodox choices and suffer for them, either from random chance, or from societal rejection, or simply from karma. It is a rare thing for anyone (especially a woman) to end up happy at the end of one his books, although I guess the daughter of the Mayor of Casterbridge does (even if the mayor doesn't), and so do - at the last moments of the novel - two of the characters in this novel.

And yet, this movie, even while generally following the main plot points of the book, somehow turns the morose, hopeless feel of a Hardy novel into something no more depressing than a Jane Austen novel. The heroines and heroes have drama, make bad choices, and enter into difficult circumstances, but they seem plucky, happy, and little more than mildly distressed throughout. Possibly that is because so many of the key events happen so fast. Characters meet and propose marriage within 2 or 4 minutes of screen time and no more than 2 meetings, and we only sometimes know why.

But that's ok. The two lead characters, Bathsheba played by Carey Mulligan and Gabriel played by Matthias Schoenaerts, are handsome, winsome, and talented actors, as is the rest of the cast. The scenery is gorgeous, and it seems period enough, although not one of the cast speaks with anything passably resembling a British accent. Bathsheba is insanely feminist beyond her era, meeting only a small amount of the trouble she should have met (especially considering her impetuous behavior and imprudent choices), and Gabriel is her faithful ever tolerant servant and admirer.

In the end, it's romantic and the story and characters are usually understandable.

The Intern: A generational comedy between Sandra Bullock, a founder and struggling CEO of a clothing business, and Robert DeNiro, a septuagenarian who comes to work for her as an intern because plot. Despite the fact that obviously an older person who has worked in sales for 45 years would have decent experience to offer your'uns who have worked in sales for 2 years, even in the age of the Internet, it takes about half the movie for this discovery to be made. During this time, DeNiro's character does everything right by everyone in the entire office, a perfect and perfectly unrealistic grandpa-figure to one and all. He even starts a romance with an older masseuse on the company staff.

The second half of the movie is different, as it is about Anne facing the prospect of having to give the reins of CEO over to someone else and also deal with the fact that her husband is cheating on her. This is the classic story of a working woman who loses her man because she's not home enough to pay attention, and it can play out in any of several directions, most of which are not satisfying. In this case, it plays out somewhere in the middle, somewhat but not entirely satisfying, and in fact remains somewhat inconclusive (and just a bit - only a bit - pat).

Not a particularly great movie, certainly not a necessary movie, but not bad.

Two Night Stand: Miles Teller and Analeigh Titpton play in this narrowly focused comedy about a one night hookup where plot happens and Megan is stuck in Alec's apartment for the next day and night. This is another movie split into two parts. The first part is all about the hate, since neither particularly had a good time during the hookup and they do some relatively dull slapstick routines wandering around the apt. Somewhere in the middle of the movie they have the conversation about what went wrong with the sex and they decide to try it again (yeah, a bit of a quick shift from the hate part, but there you go and the conversation is good). Obviously along the way, feelings. Then a big revelation of a betrayal, a breakup due to mistrust (assisted by plot convenience), and then they have to find a way to get back together.

The last part was badly done, and my suspension of belief didn't, so I threw a lot of popcorn at the screen. Can't say I particularly recommend it, but the middle was good, at least.

Kingsman: The Secret Service: This is one of those movies that make you go "Huh? Where did that come from?" It's a super-stylized, funny movie with insane amounts of class and action, somewhere between Marvel, Kill Bill, and James Bond, and it works damn well; although it has too much violence and gore for my taste, I'm somewhat of a violence prude (I hated the corridor shoot up scene in The Matrix) so I'm sure most of you won't ding the movie for that.

It's funny, not exactly thrilling but charming, has a typical, ridiculous blow the world-up and only one guy dressed in fancy clothes with gadgets who can stop it Bond plot - and a lot of references to Bond, just to let you know that it knows - and some incredible A-list actors, such as Colin Firth, Michael Caine, Samuel Jackson. And you never heard of it? How did that happen?

It also has some plot holes and character inconsistencies, but whatever. It's cool.

Adventureland: Jessie Eissenberg and Kristen Stewart romantic comedy in an amusement park and not much happens, except on the romantic comedy level. It has a quirky and independent feel, which makes it interesting at least, and I've always been a fan of the three emotions (bored, amused, upset) that Kristen Stewart knows how to act, so I enjoyed it. I wouldn't go out of my way to see it, but I would leave it on if it came on.

Monday, August 17, 2015

Vacation Day 12-18: Drinking Cappuccino in a Cafe in Rome


Rome is a city, and not an especially beautiful one. Why this should surprise me is, in itself, surprising. What Rome has is occasional nice building architecture from the last several hundred years, public fountains, a scattering of embedded ancient palatial buildings and ruins, and a river.

The attractions of Rome are primarily architectural - which, to the untrained eye, are no different than any of the other European cities I have visited so far (Budapest, London, Amsterdam; Dublin is a bit more modern) - historical, and iconic. I already know that I have very little interest in things that are architectural, historical and iconic, yet I keep letting others convince me that I will enjoy city X because it is "beautiful". But by "beautiful" they invariably mean architectural, historic, and iconic. I don't. It's not.

I am happy the moment I get out of a city and into the woods, the seashores, the mountains, and the small villages. The only reason I need big cities is art museums, cultural performances, easy access to cheap and/or kosher food, and a Jewish community.

So, how was my trip to Rome? It was okay. But I spent too much time in Rome.

Culture Shock

Italy was less enjoyable to us than New England, because we were more stressed. In the US I can wing everything. I can speak the language, I know how things work, and I can find things to eat anywhere. Going to Italy was like going back to the Middle Ages - not that Rome isn't a modern city, just that I couldn't get anything to operate, so we ended up living without modern day necessities. Like air conditioning. Places that accept credit cards. And SIM cards.

Life in the Dark Ages

I honestly don't know how people lived before there were smartphones, or at least cellphones. I have a vague recollection that I grew up without them. What did my mother do when we got lost on camping trips? It's bad enough to get lost on a trip in the US where you speak the language. Tal got separated from us in Rome for an hour or so, and we had no way to call her, and no one to help us. It was scary. Why didn't we have SIM cards, you ask? Because I couldn't figure out how to get them.

I researched online how to do this, and I found four companies with stores in which I could get the cards, but there were no stores of those kind at the airport or near our BnB before shabbat. On Sunday I found one of the stores, but it was closed, because everything is closed on Sunday. I found another one on Tuesday - with three days left to the vacation - but I couldn't understand what the guy wanted from me or how to do it, even though he was speaking to me in English. He said something about paying 15 EUR for the card and then 12 EUR for 300 minutes and a 1GB of internet, but I had to go to a different store to top up the minutes for 10 or 15 EUR. Did that mean I had to pay 15 + 10/15 EUR? 27 + 10/15 EUR? 27 EUR? I have no idea. He explained again and again and I never understood.

Cash Only

In any case, I couldn't buy the SIM card because, aside from major stores like supermarkets, clothing chains, and high end restaurants, everyone only takes cash. I had, by then, run out of cash. Places that take credit cards require you to have your PIN number, something I didn't need in any other country. By sheer accident, I happened to have one of the PIN numbers stashed on me and it happened to be for the one of the cards I had with me. Without that happy accident, I don't know what I would have done.

And Everything Else

Many other things work differently, which is to be expected, but there are no signs in English to help you out and I didn't have internet access to help me out. In a grocery store, you are expected to print out bar codes to stick onto every batch of fruits and vegetables before you go to the counter. I pissed off a grocery clerk on my first shopping expedition; he had to go back to the vegetable section in several trips to get stickers. To get onto a bus or subway you need tickets which you have to buy from candy or tobacco stores; you can't buy them on the bus. The tickets don't helpfully tell you whether they are used or not, so if you have a bunch in your pocket you have to try them all to figure out which ones don't work.

Every street has a pizzeria. I think the word pizzeria just means "restaurant" or "cafeteria", since some of them didn't actually serve pizza. There is a pizzeria in the Vatican. Every other store serves gelato. The elevators sometimes have both outside and inside doors that have to be closed manually for the elevator to work. The elevator won't work if the door wasn't closed properly on some other floor.

Rome has trees, but they are freaky trees with upside down bowls of green on top of the branches. There is free water (aqua) all over Rome, and most kiosk stores and pizzerias will fill up your bottle for free. But better restaurants won't give you free water. They will charge you for bottled water and for each piece of bread they put on your table. That's so obnoxious that I refused to eat in such restaurants, except once to have kosher pizza, and where I refused the water they offered us.

A popular Italian breakfast appears to be pastries, bread, minimal vegetables, and hard boiled eggs. And coffee. Lots of coffee.

Friday: Hungry

Our Alitalia flight was only 45 minutes late, instead of an hour late like the last two segments. This left us to scrounge for kosher food just as the kosher mini-mart and kosher bakery closed, which they do early on Friday. I was hoping that we could pick up prepared foods like lasagna and so on, but they best we could manage was lox, cheese, humus, bread, and some pasta we got from the bakery (Flour, which was also the pizza restaurant I mentioned above). Thankfully I brought some salami from the US and we bought some vegetables and fruit. Our shabbat meals were simple.

Our BnB La Casa di Eva was kosher, which meant that they give us a simple kosher breakfast and information about the local synagogues. I thought that I had arranged for us to stay in the historic Jewish ghetto area of Rome, which could be nice to walk around on shabbat afternoon. I was mistaken; we were actually in the other, newer Jewish area of Balogna which is boring (lots of photocopy stores and campus bookstores).

We had hoped to have meals arranged by chabad in Rome, but they were unable to find us anyone. Instead we sort of ate together (in the same dining room, provided by the BnB) with some fellow travelers: two girls traveling from Israel who befriended my kids, and a couple from the US on their one year honeymoon. As the usual Jewish coincidence goes, in the Italian synagogue (Beit El) we ran into a couple (who I don't know very well) from my synagogue in Israel. They were also there on a holiday, staying at a different BnB.

Saturday: Hot

We had some Italian breakfast, some kiddush after shul, and otherwise spent a long day staying in the BnB. The a/c was pretty much not working, though the BnB was planning to fix it during the renovations starting on Sunday. In the afternoon I got one of the girls to join Tal and me in Ticket to Ride; the girl won. Late in the evening, the couple and the girls and Tal went out to the Jewish ghetto for gelato.

Sunday: Ghetto

The BnB was closing for a few weeks for renovations (seems an odd time of the year to do that) so we had to move to another kosher BnB, Dem Guesthouse. They have four locations, and ours was only a few blocks away. The a/c worked a bit better. They don't have much in the way of breakfast, and it was often hard to get hold of them without a cellphone, but otherwise okay.

Later we took a bus to the Jewish ghetto by the river.

The ghetto was the result of a long string of insufferably nasty popes and other Roman leaders and it resulted in a long period of suffering for Jews. The area now has rows of kosher restaurants, the great synagogue, and otherwise not much to offer other than its continuum with downtown Rome. Saarya took a tour of the synagogue while Tal and I walked around, bought some souvenirs, had some coffee, and poked around Piazza Navona.

Monday: Sore Feet

Monday was spent on an all-day tour organized by Real Rome Tours. The morning was from the Colosseum to the Pantheon (the latter of which is a functioning church, so we didn't go into it) and the afternoon was the Vatican (the palace, we didn't go into St Peter's Basilica). We considered not going into the Sistine Chapel, but in the end I decided that it wasn't really a functioning church, even though the Pope gives a sermon in it a few times a year.

Our tour group was 13 people, nearly all of whom, by chance, were Jewish. Our guide was Roman Catholic, quite good but with some unusual ideas.

The Colosseum is really the Flavian Amphitheater, called the Colosseum due to a now destroyed large statue of Nero that used to stand near it.

The Colosseum was built with money robbed from the Jewish temple, using Jewish slaves, and was used to kill hundreds of thousands of Jews. As a result, I felt like I was touring Auschwitz. Saarya said the comparison is not apt, since the Holocaust was specifically antisemitic and the Colosseum was merely a result of a world without any specific regard for life. It was still hard for me, especially since, although the guide didn't hide any of the horrific things that happened, he still sounded (to me) like a Roman proud of his heritage.

Christians were never killed in the Colosseum, but that didn't stop popes from declaring it to be the sacred ground of Christian martyrs and placing crosses onto it. Nowadays, it is being restored by an athletic shoe company, and I'm sure it will someday be named for the shoe company.

The Vatican tour is insane. It's a castle with hundreds of rooms. Outside are hundreds of statues and similar art objects. Inside each room are dozens to thousands of paintings, statues, floors, walls, and ceiling tiles, murals and tapestries, maps, and objects curated from around the world. Most of it is old or new testament based, but a large number of objects are pagan.

Michaelangelo was a card. He was a sculptor who only reluctantly agreed to paint the ceiling and other items in the Sistine Chapel. Since he was pissed off, he added a lot of naked people, two men  kissing in heaven, and the faces of the people who commissioned him or complained in hell. He wasn't allowed to sign his work, so he added himself in the paintings. When someone complained about the naked people, he added the guy into a painting as a lord in hell with a snake biting his penis.

All tours are funneled into a specific path through the rooms; you get to see a few dozen rooms, but with only three hours or so to see them, we literally did not stop walking. Imagine going to a museum and trying to see the art without ever stopping walking. It's insane. Thousands of beautiful pieces of art flew by me as we walked and walked with only one direction possible and thousands of other people packed around us (and it was not a particularly busy day). If you're going to tour the Vatican and you really want to see the art, plan on spending a few days.

The only moment of rest was in the very tightly controlled Sistine Chapel where you are not supposed to talk or take pictures. They tried to get me to remove my baseball cap, but one of the guards let me keep it on after I turned it around. We were supposed to have a moment to rest here, but Tal was really feeling ill so we ended up leaving after only 15 seconds or so.

Then we got separated from Tal on the way out of the building and it took an hour or so to find her. The police and the Vatican security guards wouldn't help us or look for her, nor would they let me look in the building near the entrance. They said they would only help us if she was a small girl; they wouldn't help us find an adult. Thanks.

Naked, Naked, Everywhere

Walking around Rome - and the Vatican - you can see many, many statues of naked men, with or without penises. Those without are because of popes who decided that the display of genitalia is offensive and so they had many of them broken off. There are almost no statues of women, naked or otherwise, and even the ones that are semi-naked are covered on the bottom half. I guess this is due to historically considering women to be holy and pure. (Women were also placed higher up in the Colosseum to limit their ogling of the men, although the section for the nuns (vestal virgins) was a little lower.) It's an odd contrast to today's media where women end up naked more often than men.

Tuesday: On the Edge

On Tuesday Tal stayed home. I picked up a rental car and figured out that the blue lines are for parking and how the the parking meters worked. Saarya and I drove to a small town hanging on the edge of a cliff in the middle of a forest called Calcata. It is beautiful, and presently populated with artists. We also took a small walk along a nature preserve near the river you can see when looking down from the town. We had pizza in the evening.

Wednesday: Swimming

We left our place in the morning to an AirBnB place in Tragliatella, a suburb north of Rome, out in the boonies. It was a villa with a swimming pool that was delightful, although the place also didn't have working a/c and one of the bathroom doors was missing (luckily there were two bathrooms).

Thursday: There and Back Again

We drove a bit further north to see some small towns around a lake Lago di Bracciano. We saw Anguillara Sabaziam which had an accessible place for swimming. Bracciano had some shopping and a castle Castello Orsini-Odescalchi, which we didn't go into. We headed back to civilization by spending an afternoon at the mall Parco Leonardo near the airport. Saarya and I bowled; each game was 1.50 EUR.

As usual, our Alitalia flight took off late, this time an hour and a quarter, bringing us back to Israel at 3 am.

Pictures on Facebook.

Friday, August 07, 2015

Vacation Day 11: No Part Left Untickled

Today was a trip to the airport. We had to leave our pretty little cottage.

We stopped at the outlet stores in Freeport; L.L. Bean's outlet is next to an Old Navy outlet and several others. In L.L. Bean's outlet store are racks of clothes sorted by kind, then by size, and then by general color; I wish every department stores would do this, instead of sorting items by brand. Prices vary from item to item, but some are very good; Saarya picked up several pairs of pants for $6.50 each. There were racks of pre-monogrammed items (presumably returned or canceled after the monogramming).

We then spent a few hours on Old Orchard Beach next to an amusement park, a miniature golf park, and tons of American-style beachfront stores selling fried this and sugar that (also fried). It's most disconcerting to see stores that sell both pizza and hamburgers, items that are sold exclusively by separate stores in Israel. It was crowded and there was little shade, but we found some shade under a makeshift pier. The water was cold. The beach was soft, clean sand that went out for some ways.

It's a mistake to go to a beach on the way to the airport, since you likely won't be changing your clothes or having a shower, and you may not even have towels. We had one towel to share.

As usual, at the airport I opted out of the naked scanners. Aside from taking a few minutes to find someone to do the pat-down, all of the agents were nice. I wasn't treated suspiciously just because I opted out. The TSA pat-down was very thorough; there was no part of me untouched or untickled. It's the closest I get to having sex while I don't have a girlfriend. [1]

Logan terminal E is small and there's not much kosher aside from the usual expensive items at Hudson News. They have many power outlets and USB hubs. Wi-Fi service is hard to get into, however.

[1] Not to imply that I have sex with my girlfriends.

Thursday, August 06, 2015

Vacation Day 9-10: It's Raining Wild Raspberries

At night you need a sweater (that's a "jumper" to you folks who don't speak English in its original American). It rained sometime in the blackness of Monday night. Early Tuesday dawning there was a mist enveloping our cottage. At Wednesday tea-time, streams of rain thumped steadily against the car roof as we drove back from the lighthouse.

On Tuesday afternoon, the air sweated and the earth scent was feral and fungal as we walked through dank trees and ferns to the reed-clotted rocky coves abutting the bay. White and blue lobster traps, buoys, and boats bobbed in the sun. On Wednesday, emerald and sapphire waves turned to lime and sand and then to white-gloved tendrils that futilely grasped at the enduring banded strata of quartz and colored stone and then flowed and bubbled back to their mother's massive swirling limbs. Tuesday evening, meandering alongside the catnip and lily pad ponds by the main house, we ate wild raspberries from bushes dotted and dripping with the fuchsia fractal pods.

Late Tuesday evening we saw a tawny doe skitter from the road as we drove by. On Wednesday it was a scrambling chipmunk. Our hostess told us that, on Monday morning, she saw a 10 point buck nod to her as two blue herons danced a ballet on the pond and a porcupine nibbled her garden patch.

On Tuesday we didn't do much: just walked to the sea in various directions. Tal and I played Gin Rummy and Oh Hell. On Wednesday, we drove to the Pemaquid lighthouse and stopped to view shops along the way that sell jewelery, ceramics, beads, books, and paintings, all made locally. We found a small swimming hole and Saarya dove and swam while Tal and I dangled our feet in the water and watched for the snapping turtle who was floating nearby in the high reeds.

Tomorrow we leave. We will spend most of the day in Maine, and then head to Logan to catch our flight to Rome.

Tuesday, August 04, 2015

Vacation Day 8: Snores, Stores (Shaw's), Shores, and Scores

We woke up in our beautiful small house in a garden near a small pond on one of the islands on Maine's south coast. For some reason we all slept late. We didn't do much today, which was my plan, but I'm having trouble trying to convince the kids that doing nothing is a good plan; they prefer to do something.

We shored up on goods at the nearest Shaw's, which did not, in fact, have kosher meat, except for Hebrew National salami [1] and, surprisingly, some kosher cheddar cheese. Saarya noticed an entire aisle filled with nothing but beer. He also now believes that humus is the U.S. national dip, since he keeps seeing it everywhere (sometimes spelled HooMoos). Shaw's has several dozen varieties, including some infused with artichokes or avocados, and one that claims to have 40 spices.

In the afternoon we took a 45 minute drive to Reid State Park. Since there is an entry fee, it would have made more sense to go tomorrow and spend more time, but we're not always sensible. We found a beautiful spot to BBQ on the rocky/sandy shore with water streaming around us. The weather continues to be perfect, even a little chilly.


[1] I am aware that many religious Jews consider Hebrew National products to be not kosher. Some of these people may not know that their manufacturing was reduced to a single site and their kashrut was upgraded to triangle-K in 2000. Their parent company ConAgra was the subject of a lawsuit regarding their kashrut status a few years ago, in that it did not meet the "highest quality of kashrut standards", which was dismissed by the court who refused to rule on kashrut standards. Like all butchers, they may sometimes engage in questionable cleanliness and ethical practices, but I can't see that they are different then other kosher butchers (other than that they certify non-glatt meat, while other American kashrut agencies only certify glatt meat), and the tirade against them has always seemed to me to be more political than factual.

Monday, August 03, 2015

Vacation Day 5-7: Fiddles and Foghorns


Friday we left our lovely cabin in the woods and drove the long way to spend shabbat with friends of friends in Sharon, MA. We found a little river (Miller's River) in some little town (Erving) next to which to eat our lunch. We detoured a bit to south Worcester to buy a few things, and as a result we passed through Rhode Island on our way.

As a side note, on our way to the theater on Thursday night, we briefly passed through New York (going from Vermont to Vermont). That means that, together with our Maine trip next week, we have hit six states.


Sharon is a quiet town. While not entirely free of scandals (I won't link to it), it is considered one of the best places to live in America, particularly considering wealth and diversity. There are seven synagogues and as many churches and a big mosque. Our hosts live right near a woods and a lake.

Our hosts Lisa and Marc, and their kids Ezra and Eitan, were great, and the experience was exactly what I wanted. They started as strangers and ended up as friends. It is comforting to be back in an Orthodox community for shabbat after traveling during the week.

The Young Israel is looking for a new Rabbi. The shul not only has a kiddush club, it has an entire refrigerator and shelf marked "reserved for the kiddush club", with padlocks. After synagogue, someone got up and said that sometimes you have to say things that should be blatantly obvious, so here goes: don't murder people you disagree with. (I leave Israel and everyone starts killing each other. Cut it out.)

We played some Taboo and took a brief walk near the lake. Shabbat went out late. After shabbat we headed out to other friends of my kids to sleep over.


Sunday morning we went with these friends to Rubin's for breakfast (overpriced and only so-so).

Then we went to Faneuil Hall and the other markets downtown, since we were told that they are within the nexus of "what to do" in Boston for a few hours on a Sunday. The good part of the area was the street performances. We saw a comic juggling/acrobat team The Red Trouser Show performing in front of Quincy Market. They were a little long-winded but funny and talented enough. We saw a mother and two daughters stringed instrument trio Tatu Mianzi (two violins and a cello) performing on the side of Quincy Market. They performed competently and energetically in the sunshine and they smiled a lot. I watched them while Tal was shopping. The bad part was that the entire place was endless retail, tourist shopping ... not all crap, but mostly. And statues of basketball players.

Historical Boston and its freedom trail starts not too far from there. See that if you're into historical things.


We picked up more kosher food and headed to Portland. Saarya went off to discover many interesting things (including a Jewish museum or something) while Tal and I attended the Girls Night Out tour with Rachel Platten, Colbie Caillat, and Christina Perri.

Tal was the one who decided to go, and I love Colbie, so I joined her. I had not heard of Rachel, and I had listened to some of Christina's songs and not been overly impressed.

Rachel was a good performer with some solid songs. We enjoyed her small set. It will take a bit more time before she looks completely natural on stage. She is on her way, if she can keep writing good songs.

Colbie was delightful. I thought she sounded and looked a little more smooth - less quirky - than her album voice/photos, but Tal disagreed with me. Anyway, she was a solid performer with a list of solid songs, including her new ones. I can't say much more about her ...

Because Christina blew me away. Christina is an incredible performer with the most amazing voice I have ever hear in person. Either she didn't sound anything like her recorded music or I just never listened properly. Wow. She looked a little odd. She is covered in tattoos and her songs are often painful (becoming less so over time), but on stage she is constantly smiling and dancing around like a sixteen year old. Between songs I heard her giggling. Nevertheless, of all the musicians I have seen on stage (including Alanis, who walks like a duck, and Rhianna, who performs like a stripper), Christina was the most natural and entertaining.

The concert was outdoors on a pier, with large boats coming into and out of the harbor with an occasional fog horn. When they did, the singers shouted out to the people on the boat, and in one case the boat honked back at them.

The weather has been beautiful; could hardly have asked for better. I understand that Israel has been boiling. So sorry to have missed it. :-)

We found our next AirBnB location on a little island on the coast of Maine, and, while I haven't seen it in daylight yet, so far it is gorgeous and perfect.

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